Money talks? Why Canada is likely to keep its arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Canada is in the midst of a soul-searching debate about whether and how to proceed with the largest ever arms sale in its history. Saudi Arabia has purchased $15 billion in infantry fighting vehicles from Canada at a time when the Kingdom’s human rights record is under unprecedented scrutiny in the West. After a week of discussion about Saudi Arabia in Canada at universities and think tanks, my call is that the Saudis are facing an unprecedented storm but will probably prevail in Canada and elsewhere.

Nuts and bolts

The massive arms deal was negotiated and signed in 2014 during the previous Canadian administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and was inherited this winter by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It will produce armored personnel carriers for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) until at least 2028. Some will be equipped with Belgian made anti-tank canons, others with machine guns. At least 3,000 workers will be employed in London Ontario on the project. Canada has sold smaller quantities of the infantry fighting vehicles to the SANG in the past.

Canadian law is supposed to prevent the sale of weapons to countries that violate the human rights of their citizens or of other countries’ citizens. Of course many other countries have that objective as well, but Canada has long prided itself on having a progressive foreign policy tied to upholding human rights and the United Nations Charter. The Canadian media has made the Saudi deal front page news for weeks.

The liberal opposition to Harper was very critical of the deal and especially the secrecy surrounding it before Trudeau won the election. Since then, his spokesmen have been defensive about their inheritance and argue it’s too late to back out now. The sale is apparently going ahead.

Canada has long prided itself on having a progressive foreign policy tied to upholding human rights and the United Nations Charter.

Defense politics

The SANG was the power base of the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz who commanded it from 1962 until he gave control to his own son Prince Mutaib in 2010. His father promoted him to Minister of the National Guard in 2012. He is the only son of Abdullah who held a senior position under his father who is still in office, the rest were removed from senior positions when their father died and King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015.

The SANG has 100,000 troops today. They are trained by the United States under a deal that dates back to 1975. The SANG served as the kingdom’s praetorian guard for many decades when the monarchs of the Arab world were being outed by military coups in the 1950s and 1960s. The Saudi regular army was deliberately deployed on the periphery of the Kingdom to face external threats like Iran and Iraq in the northeast, Yemen in the southwest, and Israel in the northwest. They were far from the capital in Riyadh, the two holy cities in the Hejaz, and the oil fields in the Eastern Province (where most Saudi Shiites live). The SANG was deployed in all these critical places to prevent a coup, it still is deployed in these areas which give it a critical role. It guards the royals.

It also preserves Sunni Wahhabi dominance at home and abroad. The SANG sent troops and infantry fighting vehicles to quash Shiite protests in the Eastern Province in 1979 and 2011. On March 14, 2011 over one thousand SANG troops equipped with the vehicles crossed the King Fahd causeway to help Bahraini troops suppress a Shiite popular uprising which demanded an end to discrimination against the Shiite majority in the island nation. Five hundred UAE troops also joined the mission to buck up the Sunni monarchy. The Saudis and Emiratis are still there.

The SANG has also defended the Kingdom’s southern border with Yemen alongside the regular army during the Saudi war against the Houthi rebels for the last year. The Zaydi Shiite rebels have given the Saudis a difficult time.

The SANG is one leg of a triangle of armed forces in the kingdom. Crown Prince and Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef commands the Ministry of Interior forces, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman commands the regular armed forces and Prince Mutaib commands the SANG. It is a system built to ensure a balance of power in the royal family.

It is a system built to ensure a balance of power in the royal family.

Weighing the scale

Canada is not alone in debating the morality of selling arms to an absolute monarchy with a bad human rights record. Critics of Saudi policies in the West today are louder than ever. The European Parliament voted in February to halt all European arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to the Yemen war, but the vote was non-binding. Great Britain and France have multi-billion dollar arms deals with the Kingdom which have aroused some domestic criticism but are not likely to be suspended.

The Obama administration has sold Saudi Arabia $95 billion in arms in seven years. Congress has been more critical of new deals since the Yemen war began but has not halted any sales.

The large Saudi arms deals are lucrative. They create thousands of jobs in Western democracies. They give Riyadh enormous leverage over the sellers. It’s expensive to cut off weapons because of human rights violations. While the Kingdom faces more criticism than ever on the human rights front, it is unlikely Canada or other countries will unilaterally give up the Saudi market.